Tihany

Tihany

Tihany…

I was here in April 2009. Tihany village lies near the narrowest point of the eighty-mile-long Lake Balaton. The little lake behind the village (see the video below) is a geological anomaly that is 25 m higher than the real one. The stone jetty below the Benedictine abbey is on the eastern side of the peninsula. The hazy Balaton is a light, smoothie green. We had lunch below the crest of the great lake view beside the abbey (apatság) and then we got the ferry to the south shore.

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This short drone video (courtesy of Zoltán Tóth) is well worth watching.

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Old Parish and Helvick

Old Parish and Helvick

This is the Irish south coast, in the nominally Irish-speaking part of Co. Waterford that centres on An Rinn (‘Ring’, which translates as headland or promontory). The road signs are all in Irish, the schools teach through that medium, but most of the people there use English most of the time. Nevertheless if a visitor wants to speak the language, he or she will be accommodated. They all know it and can show it off. In any pub or café the language can typically be overheard.

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The Old Parish (Sean Phobal) area, it is locally believed, was the first Christian parish in Ireland, in late Roman times, and indeed this part of the south coast was the first Christian part of the island. Many of the gravestone inscriptions are wholly or partly in Irish.

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One of the roads to Helvick Head from Old Parish is known as Sea View or Radharc na mara. Helvick is a place name of obvious Scandinavian origin and the rocky shelf to which the name refers can still be seen beyond where the fishing harbour wall meets the hill.

 

Sam and Jim

Sam and Jim

Paris 1971 … an American and an Irishman meet by chance in a bar.

The young American tries in vain to attract the attention of a waiter for another beer. Nearby the Irishman reads a newspaper and sips a whiskey.

JIM
Excuse me. Excuse me. S’il vous plaît. Une bière. It’s no good. But hey, it’s Paris. (turning to SAM nearby) Excuse me, sir, can you speak French?

SAM
Would you like some help?

JIM
You live here?

SAM
Yes. A long time.

JIM
I live here too, now. Not so long.

SAM
I see. How do you find it?

JIM
Hey man, it’s Paris. But I can’t speak the language. That kind of bums me out a little.

SAM
Why don’t you learn it?

JIM
Why don’t I learn to play the guitar too… why didn’t I just plod away in my own garden?

SAM
Are you interested in music or gardening? Or do you like both?

JIM
More like music is interested in me.

SAM
I don’t follow you.

JIM
I’m in… eh, show-business, back home.

SAM
But you just said you live here now.

JIM
I’ve got the soul of a clown and it’s taken me a long way, so far. But who knows what’s round the next corner? I came here to get away from something.

SAM
Haven’t we all? What do you play? Maybe you sing. Is that it? Do you sing?

JIM
Classical buff, I imagine? Thought so. Well, it ain’t Schubert. Let’s just say I’m a troubadour. A minstrel. But where are you from?

SAM
Eh, Dublin.

JIM
Getting nowhere here with this waiter reminds me of a play by an Irish guy. It’s about two bums on a road, just shooting the breeze. Years ago, when I was back there in some school or other, I had to write a paper on it. I put forth the proposition that it was a Civil War story. It had a Grant, a Lee and a Slave.

SAM
What part of America are you from?

JIM
California.

SAM
Warm and dry. People can swim. They can be happy.

JIM
The water is very cold. I’m Jim.

SAM
Sam. I was in New York once.

JIM
Yeah?

SAM
It was a few years ago now. The people there… were all a bit odd.

JIM
I should have been a poet. A love poet, perhaps… I wish I was a girl of sixteen/I’d be the queen of the magazine/And all night long you could hear me scream.

SAM
Ah, sweet sixteen. An exceedingly unhappy birthday, zero by the chronometer. But why a poet?

JIM
Feelings are disturbing.

SAM
Einer muss wachen, heisst es. Einer muss da sein. Someone must watch, it means. Someone must be there. Find someone you can talk to. It’s just a bonus if you don’t mind the cut of her jib.

JIM
Jib – a triangular staysail, set forward of the forward-most mast. That implies going by first impressions. I never heard of an unattractive muse so I’m looking for another flashing chance at bliss.

SAM
When I was your age, or thereabouts, I used to console myself by saying that at least, with my initial efforts, Lord help us, I’d achieved creative fulfillment and a preparation for death at such an early age. Later, I maintained that success or failure on a public level didn’t matter and indeed that the latter had a certain vivifying air about it.

JIM
I guess you knew what you wanted to do. You just didn’t know what you were doing. What tripped your wire?

SAM
It was an extraordinarily bitter season, zero by the thermometer. The winter of forty and forty-one. The Gestapo started arresting my friends. I couldn’t just sit around, waiting for inspiration. But I ended up down South, working on a farm, just for food, until other Americans came, so don’t talk to me about gardens, metaphorical or botanical.

JIM
What did you do then? Just come back here and stroll around?

SAM
When it was over, I went back to see my mother.

JIM
Don’t talk to me about mothers, man.

SAM
That’s when I finally saw it. What I had to do from then on. I was nearly forty. Imagine. If only she could have seen that I made something of myself, in the end, on my own terms.

JIM
Some of us get the vision early. Maybe it was the acid… This waiter could be a regular guy on a bad day or he could be a real asshole. Were we in former times, back home, way out west, I could just shoot him and put him on my tab. But I haven’t reacted because at least he doesn’t know who I am. I haven’t given him any trouble yet.

SAM
It must be a pact with the Devil, setting out down that road into the high life.

JIM
It was different with me. Spring came early.

SAM
Shed some light.

JIM
I think I knew exactly what I was doing, at least at the beginning. Even when no one else knew it.

SAM
There are two great, mirror questions of faith, it seems. How should one live and when should one believe that other people actually know what they’re doing.

JIM
I knew, man. I knew.

SAM
I admire your youthful clarity.

JIM
But if you’ve got anything to say, you’ve only got so much of it to say and you’ve got to hope you don’t run out too fast.

SAM
I admire your clarity.

JIM
If you failed first, when you were young, at least you know you can live with it.

SAM
I went on. Like almost everybody.

JIM
I was sleeping on the roof of an empty warehouse and doing a lot of acid. It was then that the orchestra started up, just in my head. All I had was a candle and a blanket and an occasional can of soup. Then I met one of the other guys on the beach and I gave him a blast. The rest is, well, you can guess the rest.

SAM
You’re in pop, I take it.

JIM
So here I am, an American in Paris, at the end of an incredible springtime. Why are you here?

SAM
It was the place that bothered me the least. Why don’t you stop what you’re doing now and go do something else for a while? Clear the head a bit.

JIM
Like what?

SAM
I don’t know.

JIM
I’m an American in Paris. What you want me to do? Start dancing?

SAM
You must have some idea otherwise. Plus you can always keep your hand in.

JIM
If I try to keep my hand in they’ll take it off at the shoulder.

SAM
There’s always the Legion. But you’d have to learn French.

JIM
My father was in the navy… could be, still… From a thin raft, one clown could be drowned while the other was saved.

SAM
Well, why not?

JIM
It’s my job. There’s no going back now. When we started out we dreamed of being big in the city or even all along the coast but then the bullshit took over and I made interviews into an art form. It’s something I invented. But I wish I could build me a woman.

SAM
Bastard journalists. I wouldn’t give them the time of day.

JIM
I gave them the best time of their lives.

SAM
Never say anything under interrogation, if you can help it at all.

JIM
Is that something you learned in the war?

SAM
In boarding school.

JIM
Now I can’t stand it anymore. I’d be so glad if people just didn’t recognize me.

SAM
Poor you. The world is full of distress. What did you expect? A land without shadows? Why should you or I think we should be any different?

JIM
What gives you the most pain?

SAM
Whatever it is, we must master our anguish.

JIM
But what gives you the most pain?

SAM
What I’ve had to master.

JIM
But what-

SAM
The past, what else? Christ, what else?

JIM
Pain is something to carry, like a radio, to keep us awake.

SAM
I usually listen to sports on the radio.

JIM
I guess that’s enough pain if it’s your guy who’s losing.

SAM
We must master our anguish.

JIM
If you hide your feelings, you’re denying a part of yourself, you’re letting society twist your reality.

SAM
What I’ve felt has been clear since 1945. I don’t care about society. I just know that I’m not afraid to stand up for my friends. That’s all. That’s me. It’s not about what I feel, it’s about what I do. It’s what you do with it. The tracks of my tears are like invisible ink.

JIM
But how’s that trick done?

SAM
You don’t have to be a saint. Heaven knows you don’t. When you have to be somewhere, you’re there, that’s all. Someone must be there. Someone must be sound.

JIM
You don’t know shit, my friend.

SAM
That’s what tortures me.

JIM
Tortures you? You’re killing me, man.

SAM
You try to grasp a piece of flotsam, only to slip beneath the waves into the black void again.

JIM
That’s the killer on the road. Is that all you have to tell me?

SAM
For heaven’s sake, boy, go easy on the sauce.

JIM
Like I said, who knows what’s round the next corner? Now I think I got to get out of here.

SAM
I’m about to leave, myself.

JIM
Come on a crawl with me, man.

SAM
I don’t think so.

JIM
Come on, man. I can show you an amazing hole in the ground just a few blocks from here.

SAM
What hole? The earth is full of holes. Getting out at night holds different meanings for us now, Jim.

JIM
Come on. Let’s move on.

SAM
I can’t go on.

JIM
I’ll go on.

SAM
Good luck, Jim.

JIM
You threw me a bone, you explained your twilight. But I’ve got to believe there’s still manna in Paris for imbeciles like me. So long, Sam.

SAM
God bless.

Cré na Cille – the deadly Irish novel

Cré na Cille – the deadly Irish novel

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Máirtín Ó Cadhain (1906-70) is a name that can be anglicised as Martin Kyne. He was a former IRA prisoner from Connemara who became Professor of Irish at Trinity College Dublin. His 1949 novel Cré na Cille (literally, clay of the church) has been translated into at least half a dozen languages, with two English versions finally appearing in the past five years. It is said the first English attempt, in the Fifties, turned to dust when the young woman hired as translator joined a convent. There have also been stage and radio adaptations and an Irish-language feature film (2007).

The two central characters are the rival sisters Caitríona and Neil (pronounced Nell). Caitríona is dead in a Connemara graveyard but continues to live their feud from beyond the grave. Hence the brilliant conceit but the tragic element, evident from the first chapter, is that Neil took the man Caitríona loved.

Pursuing an ambition to read it in Irish was a proud undertaking in my book, though I was nearly fifty before I got round to it. Before long I got used to the non-standard spelling Ó Cadhain favoured but still had to turn to the dictionary quite often, not being completely familiar with our past customs either. After a hundred pages I hoped Caitríona would be seen yet to have put one or two over on her sister, by way of reprisal. The carry-on at her wake, the treatment of her corpse, is practically sacrilegious, even to a non-believer.

All updates come from the newly buried, though a French pilot arrives after a plane crash and no one can understand French. A hundred and fifty pages in, Caitríona gets her first bit of good news since she was lowered. It seems her previously despised daughter-in-law is a new woman since going over and hammering Neil’s equivalent over an insult and, when Neil tries to intervene, shoving her into the fire.

There is a key section near the middle of Cré na Cille – a passage of criss-crossing accusations of rural stealing and robbing this, that and the other – that performs two non-comic functions. It reminds the reader (a) not to take all that is said here at face value and (b) similarly not to take all that the living Irish say as gospel.

Towards the end of the book I began to wonder nonetheless would the whole prove less than the parts. With fifty pages to go it looked like there would be no climax, as I read a diverting passage of hospital slapstick about the mixing of two patients’ innards. That life goes on above ground seemed to be the overall message but I didn’t want to finish it just feeling sorry for Caitríona.

Nevertheless there is a kind of climax, in the end, when one ghost likens Neil and Caitríona to two pups he once saw watching a dying mule. In stopping the other getting at the mule, the one gets so worked up that it expires but, when the mule itself goes, the other pup just slinks away, leaving it all to the dead one.

agus nach bhfágann ansin ag an gcoileán caillte é.

It thus seems the positive reports of Neil that torment Caitríona have something to them and that she really wasn’t so bad after all… once Caitríona was gone. Otherwise, half the community – above ground – ends up in court and/or prison.

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Head Space : 1999

Head Space : 1999

Twenty years on… from Dublin… from truly the lowest ebb… on a programming course… 😦 … f*ck me, it was some dump.

1999

13th July, Tuesday

The plankton eater was complaining about the pointless questions asked by his neighbour (Hugh). The plankton was eaten for his colon. Gone overboard on health food (including liquid protein) and still he doesn’t look overly healthy.

14th July, Wednesday

Some petty c*nt of an assistant manager put me out of the “staff toilets” in the corridor next to the canteen. I couldn’t believe it when it happened. I’d finished my leak. I didn’t say a word to him in response to “You’re not allowed in here” but just looked at him, washed and dried my hands and left. We’d been told not to react to things like that.

12th August, Thursday

Stalag FÁS: Marcos and the Limerick boys were prevented from driving out to the nearest shop at breakfast time and then Marcos was put out of the staff toilets.

3rd September, Friday

Niall and I are sitting down to breakfast in the canteen when the plankton eater comes over. “I’ve got nits,” he says, straight out, before we take a bite. Niall christened him Nit Boy. Hugh won’t sit upstairs on a double-decker bus. He’s afraid of heights.

6th September, Monday

Went to James’s Street post office this morning but got no rent allowance. They had new computers. Made it more of a pleasure, more of a breeze, for the blonde to tell me there was nothing there. Any question was cut short by telling the customer to go see social welfare. Who are the true parasites? The option is always to f*ck them out of it, for some small satisfaction, but you ration that. What about the day one of the Hitler Youth behind the glass gave the fella called Mustapha the grief about ID? No one else, just the dark-skinned gent. He said he was coming there every week and that he wasn’t a refugee (“I’m not refugee, I’m married here”). Not that the public servant’s words were objectionable but his tone was far out of order, as was his ‘discretionary’ (i.e. discriminatory) cheek. They wouldn’t be long having manners put on them up in the Barn. According to my neighbour, they never give anyone hassle up in Dolphin’s Barn. They wouldn’t dare.

7th September, Tuesday

Nothing there again this morning. This was the extent to which the Nazi with the earring was helpful: he muttered something behind the glass and when I said “What?” he exaggerated the words “Is it your day for signing on?” After a long wait in Bride Street, where I was almost the only Irish person in the queue, I discovered it was only a computer problem. I asked if I could get changed back to Leonard’s Corner post office.

10th September, Friday

A bunch of us were drinking in The Full Shilling in Finglas. Niall was asked to leave after slagging a one-legged biker.

13th September, Monday

Compassion on the bus. I gave Niall and Dara a tenner each and we had a few pints in Bowe’s. Niall was thinking of nine quid out of reach in the bank and Dara was locked out of his flat.

21st September, Tuesday

At breakfast in the canteen, the plankton eater complimented the state of my teeth. He said he’d noticed on the bus the previous afternoon.

Last night I’d fallen asleep when the Algerians underneath came in after midnight and woke me up with their mouthing. They kept it up for an hour and when the guests left, one of the tenants had a ferocious dump. The smell wafted up to me, like a coup de grace. Open both windows. They had been good, quiet boys since the confrontation over the blaring of Rod Stewart a few weeks ago, when I stamped on the floor and one of them came up, giving out in broken English. I had a cold so I wasn’t worried about this Arab hothead. I figured the only way to get through to him was to speak French. He backed down and said sorry, once I’d explained and turned up my radio full blast, as a demonstration.

18th October, Monday

A whirlwind start with Mike, the fat English instructor, at ‘C’, or C++? He described one of my programming attempts as “logical spaghetti”.

19th October, Tuesday

The plankton eater told us he’s been riding a married woman for a couple of years and in an effort to get her to break it off with him he stole £60 from her purse. It didn’t work but it’s not much of an exaggeration to say Gary was in awe.

21st October, Thursday

In the night the winos were fighting in the back alley. When given out to, a woman among them mentioned the (symbolic) fact that a window was between them and the person giving out. A male wino shouted, “Nobody tells me what to do with my woman!” The power of the powerless.

26th October, Tuesday

It got to a stage where (I reckon) Mike was trying not to tear out his hair, while I was trying not to laugh, as he attempted to drum in the structure of a program I couldn’t grasp. I wanted the code, not the (mathematical) philosophy.

27th October, Wednesday

No class due to roofing. Three radio ads are signs of the times:

(a) an appeal for factory workers in Blanchardstown, money spelt out;
(b) the soccer player Paul McGrath on about a plastic surgery clinic;
(c) a hotline for software piracy.

29th October, Friday

A multiple choice exam in Basic 2. 14 from 18 = pass mark. I got 14. Some educated guessing and plain guessing.

2nd November, Tuesday

Cold and bright. No heating due to the roofing. Had a couple of pints in the Bridge with Niall and the plankton eater.

4th November, Thursday

The tool’s equation of maths with fun reminds me of how in school such problems seemed as meaningless as cryptic crossword puzzles. What on earth is the relevance of calculating massive prime numbers to what we’re doing?

10th November, Wednesday

Past the halfway point now. With this thing I feel I’m in the trenches. It’s not helped by this tosser, this smart-arse talking to me like I’m a schoolboy. He’s putting me off learning the blasted language. Life feels full of annoyances. This is what it’s like, tired in the evenings. Walking up through town I saw a city of students. Some buskers on Grafton Street were doing I Shot The Sheriff in the style of Oasis. Some yahoos on the Green were mixing up Brits and Britney Spears in a Spanish guy’s head, explaining the crowd and the limos outside the Fitzwilliam Hotel (re MTV Awards, Thursday) and up on Wexford Street, across from Whelan’s and the Mean Fiddler, an aged-looking Noelle Campbell-Sharp stood in a black skirt and leather jacket talking to some green-jacketed bozos. All I heard while passing was “…really f*cking something. Now let me introduce you to…” One limo was reportedly burnt out on the Northside.

11th November, Thursday

A drunken scumbag landed beside (almost on) me on the bus. Fiddling with a walkman, he said he’d just robbed a car but his mates had driven it away on him.

14th November, Sunday

While my brother was a distant silhouette on a beach I thought about the fact that at twenty-one I couldn’t imagine being thirty but at thirty-five I can easily imagine being fifty.

15th November, Monday

Class abandoned due to lack of heating. Stages of life are only stages but should one worry, getting older, that the chances of better periods lessen? From ‘This will end’ to ‘How will this end?’

21st November, Sunday

Looking for the hoover, Sarah knocked on the door of number nine (top floor). One of those Algerians emerged (scratching his balls) from a haze of dope smoke and a sing-along to camel music. No, they didn’t have it.

30th November, Tuesday

Windy, then wet. Didn’t sleep too well. Still, there was a bit of poetic justice in the end of the day that made my day. Despite having the exam program done for them by Dazza and then keeping it to themselves, the Three Licks still failed, to general delight. Everyone bar Keith failed.

I wonder how long it will be before I lose it with fat, snide Mike. I’d have done it before now if I thought he was worth rearing up on but he just may pester me over the edge soon. He seems to be goading me to quit, to suit himself, but he’ll be the last person I’ll do anything to suit.

This morning on the bus I had to listen to a DCU student who incidentally looked a bit like me, with glasses and cap. I saw what he looked like when I looked around to see who was talking like that. He was from the West and he was pontificating in the manner of a typically ignorant student of some technical subject. The object of his bullshit was a girl who was both Australian and Jewish. He told her that the passing of the Millennium marked two thousand years from the start of “modern civilization”. She was able to point out that the Romans were established long before that and when he turned to the purely Christian thing she countered with the priority of Jewish history. Then he said, “You’re a lapsed Jew, I presume” and (luckily for him) she said, “What’s ‘lapsed’?” He had been to America so of course he knew everything. He knew nothing, except that “California rocks”, and I wanted to shoot him.

2nd December, Thursday

Dazza told Keith he thought he’d have to extend the course (on a day when he did forty-five minutes’ teaching).

Went to see Morrissey at the Olympia. Seventeen songs. When he threw his (first) sweaty t-shirt into the crowd it arrived back on the stage after a few minutes. (“When I threw it in I didn’t expect it back. Really, I insist.”) When he sang “Do you care how animals die?” I’d swear I heard a chorus of “No!

4th December, Saturday

Frost. Tour guide to T. and V. A good day was had, in the cold, bright capital. First time in the Cellar Bar. T. told me his junkie half-brother survived a shotgun blast, which blew a hole in him, but died later of an overdose. The Yugoslavian Mafia have now flooded Oslo with good, cheap heroin.

7th December, Tuesday

Having had a bad night (hot, aching, dizzy, with laboured breathing) I was surprised this morning to find the oncoming ‘flu’ gone. Cold twilights leaving Finglas. The women on Camden Street looked well, wrapped up but feeling the cold. It made them more alive. You could see it in their eyes, in their faces.

8th December, Wednesday

As well as the cold now, the wind is up and the rain is down. Some vessel is missing off Galway in the storm. Since last night I’ve had a pain in my left shoulder, roughly speaking. Nothing’s gone.

14th December, Tuesday

I was only words away from a successful cog at the telephone program test. I had a hard copy of the program inside my jacket but made a simple error copying it and the program wouldn’t run. I’d never have seen the obvious mistake.

15th December, Wednesday

Which word is more accurate, “lonely” or “alienated”? When the majority of women seem to dream of timber floors and freezers big enough to hold a man, I cling to the latter term. You know the way they think when you pass them on the street because you can hear them talking into their mobiles.

The Boys from Ballymun

The evening bus picked them up on Ballymun Road. At first they seemed to be talking about an ominously immediate situation like shoplifting or mugging. The more sober and coherent of the two made two points.

(a) He’d batter anyone who decided to mix it
(b) It only takes a minute to get away

When they were talking about how much “a fix” is these days (£20) I thought ‘That’s cheap heroin’ but they were on about prostitutes. The same guy said he got one for £15, when he was a truck driver. He used to park the truck down on Benburb Street and do the business. “You wouldn’t go down there now,” said his more out-of-it companion (who was carrying something in a grey bag). Reason? “They’re all riddled with AIDS.” The first one said he’d had a fourteen-year-old down there who’d been abused by her father since she was six, “until he put her out on the game”. They said they’d roast that man on a small fire. “I’d keep adding coal to it and his screams would be heard for a thousand years,” said the main talker, the leader. Then he extrapolated.

You see some people with their kids and they’re f*ckin’ bootin’ the bollix out of ’em and punchin’ ’em in the head. I mean, what do these people be tinkin’?

They said that Ballymun’s kids had gone quiet “because their fathers told ’em ‘Watch out for him’ and ‘Stay away from him’ and so on”. They were scared, in other words.

But Finglas is still a wild place. The kids are into it, turnin’ over coppers’ cars with coppers inside in ’em.”

Their last earwig-able subject was driving. On being told he couldn’t drive the number two said he’d driven when he was pissed. Then the leader told his own parable.

This is what I did. I went and bought a car off the knackers and I got me ould fella to drive me up to the industrial estate. By nine o’clock that night I was a f*cking rally driver. I was fifteen.”

Those two were an education. And these are only the bits I could make out from their conversation, while the clicks of the lighter signalled joint-rolling was going on (“Put in more soup”).

16th December, Thursday

Ran off a hard copy of the doctoral thesis. 190 pages. I need to go over that with a pen in order to come up with a total draft for January. I could have done it by now but who would look at it over Christmas? Who will anyway?

I’ve addressed a letter to the customer complaints section of Dublin Bus on Upper O’Connell Street.

Since last July I have had to use the 19/19A service on a daily basis and in general the impression I have formed is that it is an utter disgrace… This morning I was the last passenger on a single-decker 19A that turned on to Cedarwood Road. The bald, bespectacled driver stopped the bus and disembarked, saying he’d be back in a couple of minutes. Given that the terminus for the 19A is McKee Road, for which I had paid, what really made me lose my temper was the fact that the same driver had pulled the same stunt at the same point a couple of months earlier. On that occasion he said he wanted to go into a shop to get his breakfast so I said it was okay, got off and walked up Sycamore Road. This time, I got off and asked why he wouldn’t do his job – with a few expletives added, admittedly – and he then gave the excuse that he wanted to go to the toilet. Colleagues of mine who use the same route have had similar experiences with this individual. Employees like him and another individual who happens to live on Sycamore Road and who has been witnessed taking breaks in his own house during shifts only add to the common impression that many of your drivers treat the public with contempt.

Even a fellow driver parked on McKee Road confessed that the last chap indicated was taking the piss.

22nd December, Wednesday

Town is mad. It would be a good day to punch a few people’s lights out. I lost it a bit with some screeching little slappers on a bus stuck dead in traffic.

23rd December, Thursday

Did my bit of shopping. Got a poster for Bela Lugosi’s Dead in Final Vinyl. At the end of the night Dermot bought a voucher so I could have a lap dance in Strings. I declined the offer.

29th December, Wednesday

Before the end of the year let me note the last strange thing told to me by the plankton eater, of a morning in the canteen. He said he saw a girl electrocuted at a rave in a big squat in London, in Willesden Green. She was heating a hash knife at a cooker when she let the knife touch the ring. Dodgy wiring meant she was blown back against the wall, dead. He said that three fellas tripping with him at the time started crying and that they weren’t right for days. When I asked him what he did, he said he just left, along with everyone else.

30th December, Thursday

George Harrison was stabbed by an intruder but his wife managed to knock the guy out. I hope nothing takes to the air in Russia (Y2K). The Finns have stocked up with iodine tablets.

Philip Larkin

Philip Larkin

Photo (c) Paris Review

Philip Larkin (1922-85)

Christopher Hitchens saw Larkin and George Orwell as embodiments of a certain type of Englishness. Both men loved the English countryside and feared for its future. Neither had any religious faith but both respected and learned a lot from the simplicity of Anglican prayers. When his collection The Whitsun Weddings (1964) appeared, fellow poet John Betjeman felt Larkin had “closed the gap between poetry and the public” with his down-to-earth, casual, often humorous style. Larkin and Orwell also admired English church architecture and furthermore both cherished the English affection for animals. In At Grass, Larkin writes of former champion horses in retirement; horses that were famous years before.

Silks at the start: against the sky
Numbers and parasols: outside,
Squadrons of empty cars, and heat,
And littered grass: then the long cry

He wonders for a moment if “memories plague their ears like flies” but then observes they have “slipped their names, and stand at ease”. He is glad that they, at least, can enjoy their well-earned, care-free retirement, so the mood of the poem is human nostalgia for the passing of those old glories; those “classic Junes” of racing seasons past.

In MCMXIV the faded photograph is of an English crowd at the start of the Great War. The poem indicates colossal loss as he writes of the army recruitment lines having been like crowds gathered for sporting occasions at “the Oval or Villa Park”, uniquely, innocently

Grinning as if it were all
An August Bank Holiday lark

The poem is packed with everyday details of the vanished world: the coins; the “tin advertisements”; the children named after royalty; the large number of domestic servants. They were all enveloped in hazy summer when the war began, when all these men signed up for the carnage.

The thousands of marriages,
Lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again.

A personal suspicion and fear of marriage features strongly in Larkin, even when writing of the excitement it can initially bring. The Whitsun Weddings title poem was inspired by a journey from Hull to London in 1955. Traditionally Whit Saturday was a popular choice of wedding day for the working class. A few years before his death, Larkin recalled the genesis of this, one of his most famous poems.

I hadn’t realized that, of course, this was the train that all the wedding couples would get on and go to London for their honeymoon: it was an eye-opener to me… there was a sense of gathering emotional momentum. Every time you stopped, fresh emotion climbed aboard. And finally between Peterborough and London when you hurtle on, you felt the whole thing was being aimed like a bullet – at the heart of things… Incredible experience. I’ve never forgotten it… It was wonderful, a marvellous afternoon. It only needed writing down. Anybody could have done it.”

The poet vividly sets the scene in terms of touch, sight and smell as the journey begins, “all sense of being in a hurry gone”, giving us sensations like hot cushions, blinding windscreens and a smelly fish-dock. Industry breaks into the countryside, in the form of “floatings of industrial froth” on a canal and “acres of dismantled cars”.

It takes him a while to notice the fuss at the stations, mistaking it for “porters larking with the mails”, but he is soon leaning out the windows, to see the girls in “parodies of fashion”, the “mothers loud and fat”, and “an uncle shouting smut”. These are not rich people but Larkin does not despise them. He uses ambivalent phrases like “happy funeral” to describe the mixed feelings and tension among the female onlookers before turning to the “fresh couples” catching their breath aboard the train.

It speeds up for the last fifty minutes of the journey as the couples sit side by side and watch the passing landscape, all oblivious of the others sharing this same special, brief experience.

And as the tightened brakes took hold, there swelled
A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower
Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.

Though the poet later said he meant the last line of the poem to indicate fertility, to go with the postal districts of London “packed like squares of wheat”, many people have read the transformation into rain as a sad metaphor. Thus there are other aspects of Englishness in which Hitchens thought Orwell and Larkin also had a share. This was the world of bad food and watery drinks, drab and crowded accommodation, bad plumbing, long queues, poor hygiene, rain and uncultured ignorance.

For a man who knew such things yet never really engaged with life, not to mind entertaining the idea of an afterlife, Larkin had an excessive fear of death. Ambulances is a meditation on how near and random death still is (“They come to rest at any kerb:/All streets in time are visited”). Today people may see them as a positive intervention, preserving life, but, when the poem was written, in the Fifties, to be carried away in an ambulance was a very bad sign, when passers-by could be morbidly hypnotized by, for example

A wild white face that overtops
Red stretcher-blankets

He links his personal and cultural obsessions again in Church Going, by which he means his habit of visiting churches. His comical English diffidence appears again at the very beginning. Only when he is sure there’s nothing going on does he step inside. He has no hat so he takes off his cycle-clips “in awkward reverence” before he moves to “the holy end” and gets up on the lectern, where he imitates a vicar. Back at the door, he signs the book and, in a cynical yet funny gesture, donates an Irish sixpence.

Yet stop I did: in fact I often do,
And always end much at a loss like this,
Wondering what to look for; wondering, too,
When churches fall completely out of use
What we shall turn them into

He muses about who will be the last person to go to the church just because it is a church. Will it be someone like himself?

Bored, uninformed…
…yet tending to this cross of ground
… because it held…
So long and equably what since is found
Only in separation – marriage, and birth,
And death, and thoughts of these

So it actually pleases him to stand in silence there. He becomes a spokesman for all those who, lacking belief, nevertheless find some spiritual need satisfied by churches. “A serious house on serious earth it is”, where individuals can at the very least place their own lives in the context of the life and history of their tribe.

And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious

Larkin once told an interviewer, “Deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth,” and he found much of his inspiration in the overcrowded, grubby society that he so much claimed to resent. After his death, the publication of his letters led to him being widely condemned as a misogynist and racist but, as Clive James has written, Larkin really was the greatest poet of his time, and he really did say awful things. Nonetheless he didn’t say them in his poems, which he thought of as a realm of responsibility in which he would have to answer for what he said forever.

In his last interview, Larkin recalled judging the final stages of a poetry competition. When he commented on the absence of any poems about love or nature, the organizers told him they had thrown all those away. “I expect,” said the disappointed and politely disapproving Larkin, “they were the ones I should have liked.”

Paris … Another 48 Hours

Paris … Another 48 Hours

2019

23 March, Saturday

Tired on the road to Cork even though JP was driving. The flight was a bit short for sleeping. Just and hour and a quarter. We checked into our rooms at the Verlain and went straight to St. Germain. The Bar du Marché was too busy but it was only when we sat down at Café Buci that I remembered I’d been there before. Sick in late December 2013. The tough boeuf and the sweet waitress. This time we had a couple of bottles of beer, a couple of large kirs (my vote) and a cold platter that was much more than just meat and cheese (that was JP’s vote).

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I felt immediately relaxed and refreshed, though by the time we got to the Piano Vache, via the Sorbonne and the Place du Panthéon, where the setting sun lit up the stone, I was feeling the mixture of a couple of strong drinks with the underlying fatigue. It had been a busy week.

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Anyway, the beer fridge in the Piano Vache was suspiciously poorly stocked and the chap behind the counter was really only interested in rolling dice on the counter. We still managed with what was available and P. caught up with us before dark. Different flight.

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Dinner (for me) was a pizza at an Italian restaurant JP knew, around the corner. There I quietly realized how much Italian I’d forgotten. The white tablecloth reminded me of a sinking feeling of anxiety typical at weddings but I held it together.

When we left that place, JP called an Uber and a large, pretty girl with ripped jeans and lovely North African eyes took us over to the Cork & Cavan by the Canal St. Martin. 

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There, as if by magic, I managed to locate a copy of The Cynic’s Handbook on the bookshelves.Running my fingers along the nearest volumes, I found it by touch alone. Told JP to keep it, especially as it had the pub stamp and all. Next time I’ll bring a few more copies over. We left before closing time, after all three of us ran out of steam.

 

24 March, Sunday

Up before noon in a better state than I’d feared at five in the morning. We went to Montparnasse and had lunch at Le Select. You can never go wrong there with the cheese burger and the crispy chips (fries). Lunch needed to be simple and tasty.

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Then we marched to the station to get the 14.09 to Chartres. The Paris suburbs were misty grey. The cathedral is a class apart and I’ve seen a few.

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On 16 August 1944 the Americans believed the Germans were using the cathedral as an observation post. It was about to be shelled to bits when Col. Welborn Barton Griffith, accompanied by a single enlisted man, entered the German-occupied town. They got to the cathedral and climbed to the top of the bell tower. Finding no Germans inside, the colonel returned to his own lines and prevented the shelling. Later that day he was killed two miles north of the town.

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After a couple of drinks in Le Serpente, P. and I went in. JP was in it twice before. He wandered off. When we found him again, he and I had fortifying Irish coffees in a café where a glass exploded behind the counter. On the train back I had a nap and then a job to explain all the Brexit threats to a fellow passenger, a woman sitting on a facing seat. Both she and P. had been frustrated by the locked toilets on the train. C’est difficile à expliquer, même en anglais. But she got the picture.

JP suggested we go to the Galway by the St. Michel metro, within sight of Notre Dame. He knew it from his nephew, who’d eventually got barred.  The easygoing girls behind the counter were from Toronto and Sheffield. One or two oddballs drank there, including a black American who spoke like an actor and kept calling the Canadian girl “Honey biscuit” to JP’s disdain. He wore a cloth cap, a black leather jacket and fingerless black gloves. P. stayed until midnight or so and JP and I left at closing time (2 AM).

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